Humorist Jean Shepherd is onstage at Princeton University before 1,000 spell-and-spiel-bound listeners between the ages of 8 and 65. “I tell you this, friends,” he evangelizes sotto voce. “The race of life is a sack race. As you go hobbling through this great competition with this sack on your leg, you are coupled with another partner. And that partner is the other side of you. One is the winner, and one is the screw-up. One side says, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ And the screw-up side says, ‘Ah, nah, let’s have a par-tee.’ ”
Shepherd, who ended his popular one-man radio talk show on WOR in New York last April after 21 years, receives a standing ovation for his two-hour stream-of-consciousness monologue. In the audience is John Rich, a former director and producer of All in the Family, who is developing a TV series based on Jean’s books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters.
“You know,” says Rich, “he took a line of graffiti he saw in the men’s room before the performance and wove it into his monologue. I’ve never seen anyone do that.” Rich “discovered” Shepherd last year from his TV play The Phantom of the Open Hearth on PBS’s Visions series. That portrait of a young man enduring his high school trial-by-prom won Shepherd a comedy award nomination this year from the Television Critics Circle. His 13-part PBS series Jean Shepherd’s America was so successful that New Jersey Public Television signed Shepherd to do a 13-week series called Shepherd’s Pie, and Jean is now filming 13 more.
Shepherd, 54, has steadily built a cult, beginning with his nightly radio show in 1956 on which he spun tales about his Midwestern boyhood. But Shepherd is not above biting the ear that fed him. “I hate radio,” he now says. “It is largely a medium for boobs.”
Shepherd did not feel that way growing up in the steel mill town of Hammond, Ind. He became a licensed ham operator at 13 and broke into radio soaps four years later. The year he graduated from high school, his parents divorced. “One day my father quit his job,” says Jean, “and went to Palm Beach. I never saw him again. He was an early hippie.”
Shepherd escaped to the Army Signal Corps. When he got out, he earned a BA at Indiana University, moved on to a successful TV comedy show in Cincinnati and then came East in 1955. His bittersweet chatter on WOR consistently drew an audience of 350,000.
Meanwhile Shepherd was working his way through two marriages. The first, to a University of Cincinnati coed, was brief. His second, in 1961 to actress Lois Nettleton, lasted six years. “She was family oriented,” says Shepherd, “and I wasn’t.” He has shared his life since then with his blond producer, Leigh Brown. “Jean’s not as frivolous anymore,” says Leigh. “He used to go to all those car rallies and motorcycle races. Now he’d rather write books.”
Some colleagues think Jean’s midlife switch to TV is a good idea. “Shepherd’s humor is gentle, thoughtful and introspective—like Thurber’s,” says Steve Allen. “He probably requires a more intelligent audience.” Shepherd is serious enough about his writing, but also fits in TV commercials (Alka-Seltzer, Du Pont and Triumph sports cars) and last year logged about 40 college appearances.
All this adds up to a $100,000-plus income and affords Shepherd his own Grumman TR2 plane, a Maine cabin and a Florida condominium in addition to his three-acre Jersey home. A frustrated actor, he would like to do a play. Typically, Shepherd sums up his life in aphorisms. “I have often felt,” he says, “that I had a great lack professionally: the drive to become famous. I like going my way.”